1200 Calorie Diet: Protein, Carbohydrate, Fat, and Fiber Needs

Just how much fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber do you need on a 1200 calorie diet? I’ve been asked this question a number of times and I’ve given responses for individual nutrients. Today I’d like to share with you how to assess what you need for each of the macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) and fiber all in one place.

 

The National Academy of Sciences is the government group that has had the responsibility for determining nutrient needs for the American public since 1941. As you might imagine the recommendations of the Academy have changed over time as new information becomes available with ongoing research.

Until the 1990s the recommendations of the Academy were called Recommended Dietary Allowances or RDAs. More recently, the recommendations were updated to be more comprehensive in nature. The new recommendations are now called Dietary Reference Intakes or DRIs.

The DRIs reflect a number of different measures. Of these, the easiest one to work with is the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range. How’s that for a mouthful?

What you will want to remember are the general guidelines for each of the macronutrients:

Protein: 10-35% of total calories
Fat: 20-35% of total calories
Carbohydrates: 45-65% of total calories

The reasons for this breakdown or range of values are complicated. However, no distribution will ensure you are getting enough of each of the various nutrients if you aren’t getting enough total calories in the first place. Please read my article on how to determine a safe and adequate minimum number of calories for you on a low calorie diet. Most women need more than 1200 calories as a minimum! (1200 Calorie Diet: Getting Started!)

O.K., if you have determined that 1200 calories are enough for you while on a low calorie weight loss plan then the values you are looking at equal:

Protein: 10-35% of total calories
120 – 420 calories
30 – 105 grams

Fat: 20-35% of total calories
240 – 420 calories
approximately 27 – 47 grams

Carbohydrates 45- 65% of total calories
540 – 780 calories
135 – 195 grams

(To calculate the grams of protein, fat, and carbohydrates you need to know the potential energy or calories that each gram might provide. In general, each gram of protein and carbohydrate will yield 4 calories. Each gram of fat will yield 9 calories. So just divide (protein or carbohydrate) calories by 4 to determine protein and carbohydrate grams. Divide (fat) calories by 9 to determine the fat grams.)

Your need for fiber is influenced by the number of calories you consume. However to keep things simple I suggest you keep in mind the general guidelines for fiber needs by age and sex. Adult women less than 50 years of age have a recommended fiber intake of 25 grams a day. Women over the age of 50 have a recommended fiber intake of 21 grams a day. If your dietary fiber intake approaches or exceeds the recommended level make sure you are getting plenty of water in your diet.

Please note that these recommendations are for the average person. If you have diabetes or other health challenges you need to follow the advice given to you by your medical doctor or dietician.

  • Kathryn January 26, 2012, 3:04 pm

    Hello Lori!

    I am a 25 year old female, I am 5’4″ and wight 166. I am aiming to lose 30-40 pounds. I have been using the My Fitness Pal app and it recommended a. 1200 calorie diet. I am working out 6 days a week, mainly cardio and circuit training but I haven’t lost any weight. I have been increasing my calorie intake on the days I workout to compensate for what I work off. Any suggestions? Thanks!!

    • Lori January 26, 2012, 3:55 pm

      Hi Kathryn,

      Although I don’t have enough information to know for sure, my guess is that you may not be getting enough calories. Given your height and current weight and age I am surprised the app suggests 1200 calories. 1500 would be better in my estimation plus additional calories for heavy workouts.

      I don’t know how long you have been dieting and exercising. I’ve known some people who don’t seem to budge for 2-3 weeks and then for whatever reason the weight starts to come off. You have to get a sense of what works for you for weight loss but at the same time keep track of how you feel. You don’t want to lose weight at the risk of hurting your health.

      Hope this helps,

      Lori

      • Kathryn January 28, 2012, 7:58 pm

        Thanks so much! I will try increasing my calories and see how that works!

        • Lori January 29, 2012, 5:47 pm

          Hope the calorie increase helps. If you are still not having much luck with the pounds coming off take a look at your diet. Are you following a healthy diet plan such as the one I provide here for 1500 calories? If so good! But you may want to try a lower carb approach. There’s no need to have a very low carb diet (less than 100 net carbs or so) to gain the benefits of lower carb. Just cutting back on your normal carb intake could make all the difference. Focus on getting lots of non-starchy vegetables and plenty of lean protein (unless you have kidney or liver problems). Good luck!

  • Nicole January 22, 2012, 11:20 am

    Hello Lori! I am hoping for some help. I have been struggling with the battle of the bulge for most of my life. I’ve tried all the pills, gimmicks, fad diets etc. I’m trying to do it the right way but fear all the yo-yoing and pills have killed my metabolism. I am almost 33 years old. I am 5’7 and weigh 190lbs. I would like to lose 40 to 50 lbs. I would not say I am sedentary but maybe only mildly active. At the moment, I am trying to follow a 1200 calorie plan but for 2 meals am using meal replacement shakes. The weight is NOT coming off and I am so frustrated. Everyone that I talk to has a different opinion and I am getting very frustrated. Any suggestions? Thank you so much!

    • Lori January 23, 2012, 8:41 am

      Hi Nicole,

      Yes, I am sure you are indeed getting different opinions from everyone you talk to! The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as “one size fits all”. What will work best for you has to be determined by your individual needs and even then, it will likely take some experimenting to figure out what if anything will work best.

      Yes, I did use the words, “if anything.” We are now learning more about the negative effects of pills, fad diets, and otherwise unhealthy diets. In some instances it may indeed cause irreparable changes to otherwise normal weight maintenance. (But never give up hope! There is also evidence of new research to suggest ways we might be able to return a person to a more normal metabolism and body chemistry.)

      In the meantime, I would strongly encourage you to do several things. First of all, eat real food! Stop drinking meal replacement shakes. Eat a healthy well-balanced diet such as the ones I suggest here with my diet plans and eat enough calories. That’s my second recommendation. Get enough calories to keep your body healthy and functioning properly even for weight loss. In my quick estimation that might be closer to 1600 calories (This is less than you need for maintenance). The third very strong recommendation is to get more exercise. Find anything you like to do to be more active. The more you move your body the better. You don’t have to do formal exercise for this to be effective. For example, gardening, housework, actively playing with kids, dancing, etc. all count!

      You haven’t killed your metabolism but you need to begin making some better choices for your body to have a chance. What choice will you make?

      I wish you the very best!

      Lori

  • Christian January 12, 2012, 7:21 pm

    I have read a few of the comments and would like to add my own inquiry. I have a similar situation to one of the above. I am 31 years, 5’7″, weight around 190, female, and am trying to lose at least 50 lbs. Most of it is baby weight and some additional from anti-depressants after the baby. I am off of those now. I have a family history of diabetes and had gestational diabetes when I was pregnant. No diabetes now, but have been advised to eat low-carb. I am using a calorie tracker to help with the process, but the % for protein, fat, and carbs seem off or at least high for low carb. What percentages are recommended for a 1200 calorie, low carb diet? Do I need to increase calories as well? I seem to go over often anyway. Exercising is definitely on the slow side now, will improve though.

    • Lori January 13, 2012, 1:20 pm

      Hi Christian,

      You’ve asked some great questions that I would like to give some time to answering. Unfortunately today is a very busy day. I will hopefully find time to get you a response over the weekend.

      Thanks!

      Lori

    • Lori January 14, 2012, 8:05 am

      Hi again Christian,

      O.k., you’ve been advised to eat a low carb diet and probably with good reason. A reasonably well-rounded and nutritious low carb diet can be very effective for weight loss and maintaining health at least in the short term. I know it works because I’ve tried it!

      The greatest problem with low carb diets is not the short term but the long term. Although a certain percentage of people can maintain a nutritious low carb diet for the long term (with a higher carb intake for maintainence than the initial weeks) and do very well most people cannot. Why isn’t clear but it seems the diet is too restrictive for satisfaction. Most people are happier with more carbs. (This was absolutely true for me!)

      The breakdown of macronutrients as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences is intended to be a guideline for obtaining all the necessary nutrients needed by the average person to achieve AND maintain good health. It was not developed for weight loss.

      I’m sharing this because when you choose to go on a low carb diet you need to be extra careful you are getting the nutrients you need for health. Carbohydrate foods come from plants and are a source of phytochemicals (antioxidants and more) that play an extremely important role in reducing risk for cancer, heart disease and more. If you choose to get a minimum of 100-130 net carbs and you are careful with choosing nutrient dense sources of carbs such as vegetables and a little fruit or whole grains then you will likely be fine not only in the short term but in the long term as well. Hence the reason for the recommendations as set.

      However, a problem with having a carb intake as high as 100-130 net carbs right from the start is that you will not likely experience ketosis and will not lose weight as quickly. But on this higher carb intake, you will be more likely to feel satisfied and be able to continue with a low carb diet in the long term.

      In a recent study of healthy people who have maintained a healthy weight over a long period of time, the study participants were found to be consuming a diet that falls within the precise recommended levels made by the Academy (45-65% carbohydrates, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fat). (I can’t find the reference right now but if I do I’ll add a note.)

      Given your current age and weight I would suggest you have a caloric intake of about 1650. However, if you are on a strict low carb diet with 50 net carbs or less you won’t need to be concerned about calorie counting. Keeping track of carbohydrates is time consuming enough and the diet becomes self-restricting on its own because of the higher protein and fat intake.

      Hope this helps!

      Lori

  • Michelle December 28, 2011, 4:20 pm

    Lori! Great website! You’re such an inspiration.

    I had a couple of quick questions – I am 30 years old, 5’6” and weigh 160 pounds. I started your 1200 diet this past Monday because I want to shed about 25 pounds. I’m currently working out around 4 times per week for an hour doing Jazzercise or Zumba. My heart rate monitor tells me I’m burning around 400 – 450 calories per hour. I’m deathly afraid to eat up those burned calories. I noticed one blogger stated she would only eat 1200 on her non-workout days, so I guess this would be the best solution? I’m just not sure how many calories to eat on my working out days.

    Also – is there such thing as too much protein? For breakfast I generally have 1/2 cup of dried rolled oats mixed with 1 cup of Silk milk and 1/4 cup of 0% Fage yogurt. Then I’ll have another Fage yogurt or 2 tbs for hummus for a snack, then 3 oz of extra lean ground turkey, 1/2 cup of beans or 3 oz of chicken (boneless, skinless) for lunch and dinner. I’m just wondering what happens if you consume too many grams of protein?

    Again – thank you for all this wonderful information!

    • Lori January 2, 2012, 11:14 am

      Hi Michelle,

      My apologies for the delay in responding to your questions. I was traveling over the holidays to visit with extended family including my elderly mother. I am only just today back in my office.

      As for your calorie count it is always a matter of initially coming up with a total that MIGHT work best for you and your situation and then experimenting a bit to get the best fit. For example my quick calculations suggest you would be better off with a 1500 calorie diet than 1200 calories because 1500 is closer to your basal metabolic rate. The whole idea is to keep your body from thinking you are starving and as a result causing your body to burn fewer calories than normal. All of this is very complicated and no two people will respond in the same way.

      That’s why I recommend experimenting to figure out what works best for you. If you eat more nothing bad will happen and you will be more likely to keep your body happy. Try increasing your calories and see if you continue to lose weight. If you do then keep it up till weight loss slows down at which time you may need to re-evaluate. As you lose weight your basal metabolic rate will be lower. That’s normal.

      If you raise your caloric intake to 1500 and your weight doesn’t budge then maybe the 1200 calorie intake (or 1300 or 1400) may be a better choice.

      As far as eating the calories you burn with exercise, you might try it both ways. See what works best for you. As a general rule I believe compensating for the calories burned in formal exercise is a good choice and you will still lose weight if your total count is less than your overall needs. You’ll just be putting a little less stress on your body. But if you stop losing weight and go back to not compensating for those calories, I would suggest you take note of how you feel (when not compensating for those calories). Are you able to continue weight loss without feeling exhausted and tired?

      Eating too much protein might be a problem for some people more than others. Too much protein is a problem for people with kidney or liver disease. High protein diets may also increase the risk of kidney stones and osteoporosis (although this point is still controversial and highly debated). If any of these situations might be an issue for you, I would encourage you to talk with your medical doctor.

      For the average person, a high protein diet is generally o.k. in the short term. The problem with following a high protein diet in the long term is that you may put yourself at risk for not getting the nutrients you need from a more balanced diet with greater variety.

      Hope this helps. Wishing you the best of luck with your diet!

      Lori

  • Lori December 2, 2011, 1:02 pm

    Been struggling to get the right combo… I’m 37yrs old, 160lbs, 5’4″, moderatly active (walk 2-4 miles 3-4x a wk), goal weight 130, healthy (except fat!!!).

    Been following 1200 cal, 36g fat, 130g carbs, 58g protein.

    Am I close to where I should be? I have all the time in the world to lose the weight… I do not mind losing it slowly and permanently! :)

    Thank you for the information you provide!

    • Lori December 2, 2011, 5:07 pm

      Hi Lori,

      (Great name!) You have the right idea Lori. Your intake of the basic macronutrients is certainly within a healthy range (the suggested range of 45-65% calories from healthy carbs, 20-35% from healthy fat, and 10-35% from protein.) However, if this is a typical day your total caloric intake is quite low and I see that as a potential problem.

      Fat has approximately 9 calories per gram, carbs have 4 calories per gram and protein has 4 (the energy cost of digesting protein is higher than for fat or carbs so the calorie count actually comes up being somewhat less). That suggests you have about 234 calories from fat (23.7%), 520 calories from carbs (52.7%), and 232 calories from protein (23.5%) of a total of 986 calories.

      Your actual breakdown is very good. If you would just increase your total intake you will do better. I know many people hate it when I tell them this but I strongly encourage you to not eat less than your estimated basal metabolic rate (BMR). Yours seems to be much closer to 1500 calories than 1200 calories.

      I am sharing this with you because I would genuinely like for you to succeed not only in the short term but also in the long term. Some of the latest research suggests that when a person goes on a low calorie diet and successfully loses weight that metabolism changes. If you compare two people of the same sex, age, height, and weight, the person who lost a considerable amount of weight will typically have a lower metabolic rate and will need fewer calories to maintain than a person who has always been at that weight. That seems to be why so many people put the weight back on so quickly. I don’t want that to happen to you!

      If you have the time to do it right (weight loss) then please consider eating more. If you want to keep it on the low side for carbs that’s fine. 130 grams of carbs is enough if you are choosing well and getting plenty of dietary fiber from veggies and a little whole grains and/or fruit. Many people will find they lose weight faster when carbs are on the low side but it is not the best idea to eliminate them completely.

      I’m really glad to hear you are getting some great exercise. Doing this and getting plenty of protein you will encourage your body to burn fat rather than lean tissue such as muscle for energy. Good for you!

      If you increase your caloric intake as I hope you do, you can increase it across the board or keep carbs on the lower side and simply add more healthy fat and some protein.

      Good luck!

      Lori

  • Andie November 2, 2011, 2:12 pm

    Hi Lori,
    I’m 19 years old and 5’11 and looking to lose the last 11lbs. At the moment I’m on a 1200 calorie diet which consists of around 80-100g carbs per day and usually 80-140g protein. Is this the right move for shifting those last 5kg? I exercise daily. Mainly cardio, with a bit of resistance training. I also have just started taking Whey Protein Shakes. Thanks.

    • Lori November 3, 2011, 7:30 am

      Hi Andie,

      I want you to succeed for the long term and not just for now. You can achieve both by eating more of the “right” foods. Although I don’t have enough information to know for sure, given your age and height (and the cardio exercise) you are not likely eating enough calories. That can and most likely will backfire on you if you ever go back to your regular every day eating. Why? Because you will have caused your basal metabolism to slow down and you will need fewer calories to maintain.

      The lower carb intake and high protein may be good. I can’t comment on your particular situation (with the whey protein) because I don’t know enough about you. However, having said that I recommend you eliminate all added sugars and refined carbs from your diet (something you are probably doing and that’s good!). Focus on eating fruits, non-starchy vegetables, beans (legumes), lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, low fat cottage cheese, and low fat plain yogurt (especially greek yogurt). Eating like this will give your body all the protein it needs along with the other high quality nutrients. You’ll find you can eat all you want (because it is self-regulating) and thus have no need to count calories. Your body should burn fat like a charm.

      When you’ve achieved your goals you can add some whole grains back into your diet but strictly limit the added sugars and refined carbohydrates.

      Hope this helps,

      Lori

  • Kari August 9, 2011, 2:57 pm

    Thanks for your info! I am on a 1200-1400 calorie diet, I know that’s a bit of a range, but on days that I exercise, 1200 just doesn’t cut it; so I plan to stick to 1200 calories on non-exercise days and 1400 on exercise days (3-4 times a week) which consists of core toning and my added calories come from a whey protein shake. My goal weigh is 140-145lbs. I am 5’7, 177 lbs, 27 years old and a mother of two, I’m working off that baby weight from my second child and it is proving tougher than the first (she just turned 1 and I am still struggling)! I have lost 15 lbs in the last 3 months and really would like to speed the process up a bit. I want to try focusing on my percentage of protein intake since it is supposed to help with lean muscle, and my stricter diet is just now becoming a definite (I love food sadly lol). My short term goal is 8-10 lbs by mid-Sept and my long term goal is to lose a total of 25-30 lbs by mid-December. As slow as I am losing, I know that I may not reach my short term goal on time, but I set it higher to motivate me. Any suggestions??? I would greatly welcome any advice and if anything I am doing seems out of place, please point it out! Even if I still continue losing slowly, my main goal is to ensure that I can maintain my goal weight once I reach it.

    • Lori August 9, 2011, 4:03 pm

      Hi Kari,

      I must ask for your patience and I will get back with you. I’m leaving before the crack of dawn on a trip to visit my mother. Hopefully I’ll find a few minutes to respond to you soon.

      • Lori August 11, 2011, 12:13 pm

        Hi Kari,

        It seems like you’ve given your weight loss plan a good deal of thought. Good! I like that you are allowing for more calories on the days you exercise! It’s also good that you recognize the importance of getting enough protein to retain lean body mass such as muscle AND for satiety (keeping you feeling more satisfied on fewer calories). However without knowing more about your diet I don’t know if a whey protein shake is the best choice for you or not.  In addition, your overall calorie intake is on the low side considering your height and current age and weight. 

        Your BMR (basal metabolic rate) seems to be about 1600 calories a day.  That’s the calorie intake I believe would be better for you. As counter intuitive as it may sound you might actually find you will lose weight faster by INCREASING your calories.

        A weight loss of 5 pounds a month is actually good even though it may not seem like it. Given your current calorie intake, do watch out for your weight loss slowing to a crawl or more importantly you getting fatigued and worn out. If that happens by all means increase your caloric intake!  (Your BMR will be lower as you lose weight. You can recalculate when you’ve lost and additional 10 – 15 pounds.)

        As for maintenance do take the time to think about and even write down your eating habits. Take a good look at where you were getting the extra calories before you began a diet. This is essential for maintaining or you could relapse into the same habits as before.

        Best of luck,
        Lori

  • Michelle July 26, 2011, 9:02 am

    Hello- thank you for this information; however, it is so broad- I want to lose ten lbs & am on a 1200 cal diet. I’m 33 yrs old & 5’0. Is 30 grams of protein too little?? I was thinking maybe 25 grams fiber, 150 g carbs, protein 50 g, 200 g cholesterol or less, less than 13 grams sat fat & 27 g fat. How many grams of sugar is the recommended amount?? Does this sound okay? Please help. Thanks!

    • Lori July 27, 2011, 7:11 am

      Hi Michelle,

      Yes, the information is broad. It’s intended to give people a general idea of how to balance out meals and snacks for the macronutrients and dietary fiber. Individual needs will vary considerably. I have some guidelines on how to determine your individual needs more precisely on another website. Would you like those links? I can get them for you after I finish up some of my other work I need to get done today.

      The breakdown you provided looks reasonable. But I can’t say whether or not they would be right for you without having more information. For example, I don’t know anything about your weight or your overall health.

  • Ava June 30, 2011, 7:05 pm

    Lori,

    I have a laundry list of health problems that just became known in the last year. I have vitamin B12 and D deficiencies, hypothyroidism, hypoadrenalism, hypopituitarism and sleep apnea. I am, of course, taking meds for each of these issues and am with an endocrinologist. I am currently 288 pounds and my family doc wants me to start an eating plan at 1200 calories per day. I have trouble keeping my energy up on some days and I’m concerned that 1200 will not provide me with enough energy. I am 5’3″ and 58 years. What do you think?

    • Lori July 1, 2011, 2:22 pm

      Hi Ava,

      Sorry to hear of all your health challenges! It’s good to know you are working with an endocrinologist and receiving necessary medications. I am assuming your family doc is NOT your endocrinologist.

      Although it would seem to me that 1200 calories is not enough calories, I am not a physician and so do not have the expertise to give you suggestions given all of your health issues. Have you asked your endocrinologist about this? I would share your concerns with him or her and I would also let your family doc know about your struggles with having not enough energy to get through each day.

      I sincerely hope you can get more help with this,

      Lori

  • Elle April 26, 2011, 12:14 pm

    This page is exactly what I was looking for, thank you. I have been on a 1200 calorie eating plan for 8 weeks now and have been losing about 2 pounds a week. Because I have been eating mostly vegan (for health/digestion issues) with just a few bites of cheese here and there, I have been getting between 25-29 grams of protein a day. Because I am exercising 3-4 days a week on the 1200 calories a day, I am wondering if I need to up my protein. The low end of your scale says 30 grams of protein is the minimum for a 12o0 calorie diet. Should I make sure to get the full 30 grams, or am I ok with my current average?

    • Lori May 4, 2011, 11:33 am

      Hello Elle,

      My apologies for the delay in responding! I am in the middle of moving from one state to another. I don’t always have the time I need to keep up with my website comments.

      Please tell me more about yourself so that I can answer your question better. Let me know your age, height, and current weight. Your calorie and protein needs depend on these factors whether you are on a weight loss diet or not.

      Good luck with reaching your weight loss goal,

      Lori

      • Marie bartley January 30, 2012, 8:05 am

        Hi,Lori.
        I was reading comments and wanted to add mine. I’m really confused if I should be eating more or less calories and how to do my fat, protein carb percentages. I am 33 years old currently at 155. I am trying to lose 15 more lbs. I’ve lost. 40 lbs so far I had a baby a year ago. I was on 1200 calories. I did one of those general fitness sites and your,ug in info and it told me 1200 calories so I followed it. However my loss is slowing drastically I don’t know what my calorie intake should be. I really do work out pretty hard. I workout about 5 days a week. I’m a runner. I started running about 4 months ago. I run about 14 miles a week, weight lifting 3 times a week and high cardio. I wear a HRM and I seem to burn around 750-1000 calories per day. On my low weeks I’m at 500 a day burn. I normally eat just the 1200 calories. I don’t eat my exercise calories. Am I eating too few calories and how do I determine my general protein, carb, fat intake. I know I wanted to up my protein but dont know how much!! Thank you so much , in advance, for your response!

        • Lori January 30, 2012, 9:06 am

          Hi Marie,

          Although I don’t know your height, my guess is that you would need a minimum of 1450-1500 calories a day for basal metabolism. Given that you are doing so much exercise I would increase that total intake to cover the energy cost of at least some of the total burned. You’ll have to experiment with this but I would suggest an additional 250 calories on your lowest calorie burn days (500 calories) and 500 on the other (750-1000 calories burned). But you may need to do full replacement of these calories. Always take note of how you feel.

          You should continue to lose weight but no matter what you do the rate of loss will be much slower than when you began. This is perfectly normal. Basal metabolic rate will slow as you lose weight. Just give your body time and you will achieve your goal.

          Let me know how it goes.

          Good luck!

          Lori